A large yellow bus labeled “Andover Schools” idles patiently on this chilly, starless night,
while the inside of the bus rocks with energy. Booming voices and laughter compete with
drumming feet on the bus floor; restless bodies urge the driver to get going.
There aren’t many empty seats on the bus as I breathlessly climb aboard, furious at myself for
being late. I look around frantically to no avail. As a benchwarmer player I’m not regularly
invited to the away games, so the pattern of who sits where does not include me. Usually, the
girls team sits together in front, the guys in the rear, but later in the season, there’s more
“coupling,” and this night is later in the season.
I hear my name above the din; ten rows back a boy stands, as best the ceiling of the bus
allows, and motions me to join him. Kenny, also a benchwarmer and not top pick to sit with or cuddle, looks like my fate for the next hour.
Kenny is new to our school, an unknown with a different history than most. He’s a foster kid
with a chip on his shoulder, a cut-up in the corridors, inattentive in class, and often late — a
bit of a bad boy. One very positive attribute Kenny does bring is his ability on the dance floor,
and I love to dance!
He’s uninhibited, owns some moves he must have learned elsewhere, and is super attuned to his dance partner, which is sometimes me. Dancing and our shared woe at being benchwarmers are our commonalities.
I slide into the seat beside Kenny; he moves over to give me the area he has already warmed —
sweet! We fist bump in honor of both of us making the roster for this game. I organize my
stuff, arrange my coat collar to be a pillow, and lean back, preparing for a bit of shut eye.
Kenny starts a conversation with a friend a row ahead and I have, for the first time, an
opportunity to study him up close. Kenny’s sandy brown hair is close cut, longer on top but
near shaven on the sides; he seems to have a slight mustache in the making. His face is long,
somewhat thin; his features are almost chiseled.
His eyes are dark brown, set deep; his is not a quick, easy smile, but it is warm when it arrives. His breath smells strongly of anisette, I think — unusual unless he’s a fan of licorice or took a slug of ouzo as he rushed out the door.
Kenny looks my way, and we prattle on about school, gossip a little, and reminisce about the
last school dance. I notice I feel warmly toward this quirky guy. He turns to glance out the
window, then all of sudden yells “padiddle, padiddle!” The whole bus looks around; I sense
a bit of laughing and smooching happening nearby.
All of a sudden I’m pulled into a big hug myself, and a soft, sweet, licorice-tasting kiss is planted on my lips. I must have looked shocked; Kenny leans back as a loud guffaw arises from deep in his smoker’s throat. He finally croaks out, “Gotcha! I really gotcha that time; wow, you should have seen the look on your face!”
Memories of my first kiss are associated with the sweet smell and taste of what I thought then
was licorice or perhaps the liqueur often sipped in Greek homes after dinner. Therefore,
that kiss was sweet in more than one way — innocent, unexpected, a nervous smooch given
and received, as part of a padiddle game.
In those days, a padiddle was an automobile with a broken headlight. As cars were not inspected regularly for safety in the ‘60s, broken headlights were not rare!
Many dances and a few kisses followed that fateful night. Kenny didn’t receive a signed
diploma on Graduation Day, as he was short a few credits. I learned he joined the army shortly
after high school. We didn’t communicate through the years, but just before our 50th high school reunion I learned he was living in North Carolina.
I reached out to him, hoping he might attend. During that call Kenny shared the details of where life had taken him — a career with the armed forces, marriage, family. He asked about my life.
Kenny was sadly unable to attend the reunion, too weak from coping with the final stages of lung cancer. As I hung up the phone, I wept for Kenny, but the memories of that first kiss and how we whirled about the dance floor are mine and ours forever.
So, no baskets scored in a game, but an athletic letter that arrived — finally — in my senior year,
which some may call a pity “A,” but I’ll call an A for persistence; and that sweet first kiss of high
school in Andover, New Hampshire — memories that all, now, make me smile.